This article looks at the inevitability of creeds (all Christians have creeds), and the place of creeds in the church.

Source: Christian Renewal, 2007. 2 pages.

Do We Need Creeds and Confessions If We Have the Bible?

The story of the American evangelist William M. Branham (1909-1965) is a fascinating one. Branham claimed to receive prophetic visions and angelic visitations during his childhood, all of which powerfully confirmed in his mind a calling from the Lord to a special ministry of leading the church back to the apostolic faith.

In his early 20s Branham was ordained an assistant pastor in a Missionary Baptist church in Jeffersonville, Indiana. When he discovered serious theological differences with the senior pastor, Branham started his own tent meetings, eventually garnering enough support for his following to purchase a building in which to worship. The congregation affectionately named it “The Branham Tabernacle.” So began the career of one who is often credited with founding the post World War II faith-healing movement.

The Inevitability of Creeds🔗

In his book, Why I'm Against Organized Religion, Branham wrote,

We have no law, but love, no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible: no membership, just fellowship through the Blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses us from all unbelief.

The irony, of course, is that with this insistence upon no creed, Branham introduced a creed, a creed not found in the Bible, a creed for which there is in fact no biblical support.

My response to the individual who insists, “No creed, but Christ,” is invariably to ask the question, “But who is Christ?” “That's not so hard to answer,” my interlocutor might say, “I believe Christ is fully God and fully man …” At this juncture in the conversation, I interrupt. “Just a minute,” I say, “I don't read those words anywhere in the Bible. Please answer my question without giving me your own formulations. I'm not interested in your creed.”

This illustrates the problem. The moment you say anything about the Bible, Christ or the Christian faith without using the exact words of the Bible, you are articulating a human creed or producing a creedal formulation.

This means that members of churches or congregations which have no officially adopted creeds are all operating with and by their own individual creeds. This begs two questions: first, how do you account for the massive discrepancies between these numerous individual creeds and second, who gets to determine which of these divergent creeds are in fact biblically sound and acceptable?

At this point the creedless church might see the wisdom of adopting a doctrinal standard or statement of faith with which to make judgments about the plethora of individual claims to orthodoxy. The question then becomes, how does one go about drawing the line between truth and error, orthodoxy and heresy?

Reformed churches believe that the answer to this question is two-fold: church history and Christian community (which, when added together, equal catholicity). We have no intention of reinventing the wheel and so we study how the Christian community throughout her history has distinguished what's truly biblical from what's spurious or fraudulent. This leads us to defer to, and embrace as our own, those carefully crafted judgments of the ancient creeds produced by the early ecumenical councils – namely, the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed.

Whereas the ecumenical creeds help us distinguish orthodoxy from heresy or church from cult, the Protestant confessions help us distinguish truth from error or wholesome church from defective church. We must never equate in our minds denials of the Trinity with denials of Calvinism. Surely we share the assessment of William Ames, an advisor to the chairman of the Synod of Dort, who concluded that Arminianism is not so much a heresy as “an error tending to heresy.”

The Utility of Creeds🔗

Since its inception, and as a direct result of the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and its potential for individual moral judgments, the United States has been home to numerous anti-clerical movements which have eschewed the formal training of ministers and decried the use of creeds and confessions. History indicates, however, that these anti-clerical, anti-creedal movements, far from driving people back to the Bible, actually drive people from the Bible.

This is one of the central theses of Nathan Hatch's scintillating book, The Democratization of American Christianity. The group or movement in American church history which frowns upon creeds is the same group or movement which drifts from orthodoxy. History therefore bears witness that creeds and confessions, far from undermining the Bible, in fact undergird the Bible.

In his book, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, Dutch ethicist Jochem Douma makes the same case. Though creeds are often perceived to be idols which the church must break, they are actually iconoclastic in function, when properly understood and employed. They reveal, judge and dismiss fraudulent theological depictions of God.

It’s more than a sociological fact that just about every Christian leader who insists upon a creedless church ends up founding a cult. This brings us full circle to William M. Branham. When all was said and done, Branham was convinced, among other things, that Trinitarianism was of the devil; that after sleeping with the serpent, Eve gave birth to Cain; that women should not cut their hair; that 1977 would usher in the millennium; and that denominationalism was the mark of the beast. How could such a gross distortion of biblical teaching be prevented? If only Mr. Branham had embraced the creeds of the church.

I must note in conclusion that for all my fervor for creeds and confessions I understand they must never supplant or subvert the Bible as our ultimate authority. It's always important for me in this connection to remember two of three fine ladies I met in seminary, Norma Normans and Norma Normata (the third was Pauline Eschatology). The Scriptures are norma normans (the standardizing norm) and the confessions are norma normata (the standardized norm). The confessions, in other words, are standards only because they've first been standardized by Scripture.

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